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Anchoring Bird in Flight Shots

by Steven Blandin | November 28, 2018

Pursuit in the skyFlying bird photographs are sought-after creations for most bird photographers. Besides the difficulty of properly synchronizing one’s hands motion and sight to properly frame the bird, there are other composing considerations to consider. It is very pleasing to create a photograph of a beautiful bird with wings fully outstretched on an open blue sky. It is already a tough thing to capture a good wing stance, while having a nice head angle and without clipping any feathers! So, why the concern of adding an anchor to the already very gratifying image?

Pursuit in the sky © Steven Blandin

Pursuit in the sky. © Steven Blandin

A plain sky, even of a beautiful blue, can be a bit boring. More importantly, it really helps to give a sense of how the bird positions itself in space. Having part of the background in the image goes a long way into situating the subject. Our minds play strange tricks sometimes and having a sense of location in space helps us focus on the subject. It also gives an environmental aspect to the image!

In the Alaska bald eagles image above, the white capped mountains in the backdrop give a sense of the situation and where the action took place. It really adds to the story, hence making a stronger image than if the birds were just pursuing each other in a plain sky.

With very long lenses the environment of the scene may become very blurry, which helps detaching the subject and making stand out, but often it becomes an obstacle to keep a sense of location. Consider keeping the tree tops in the image, even if the trees are blurred! See below for a roseate spoonbill starting a landing maneuver.

Approaching the trees © Steven Blandin

Approaching the trees. © Steven Blandin

The same image without the tree line in the bottom leaves us to wonder where the bird is going or what is happening.

While we are on the topic of landings, vertical images can be an excellent approach to add the touch point in the image. For instance, in the image below of a landing roseate spoonbill, I was very happy to successfully include the rocks in the photograph. Having that part in focus allows us to easily envision where the bird is going to land.

Coming in © Steven Blandin

Coming in. © Steven Blandin

One of the best tricks to keep in mind is to step back and avoid creating photographs of birds in flight that are framing the subject too narrowly. One, you will have better chances not to clip the wings. Two, you are more likely to have some anchoring points as part of the image.

Ospreys on nest © Steven Blandin

Ospreys on nest. © Steven Blandin

Better yet, having a nice orderly nest with a bird approaching in flight can be a real treat. The osprey image above depicts an incoming osprey with fish in its talons, coming to join its partner at the nest. Not only is the flight action very appealing, but we get an excellent storytelling piece with the other osprey looking back and the top part of the nest. There is no clipping of the branches on the sides which is a nice plus.

Fishing games © Steven Blandin

Fishing games. © Steven Blandin

The vertical framing approaching can be very powerful! In the image above, we have two sandwich terns playing with a fish just plucked out of the water. The scene unrolls just above the water. Having the small waves in focus gives a sense of perspective and let us imagine that the fish was recently scooped out of the water. When working on birds in the middle of a fishing action, including the water in the frame can really push the image into a superior category. Of course, one needs to plan for this to happen: shoot vertically and have your focus point moved upward a few notches from the center.

In the end, one of the best pieces of advice is to step back a bit from the action and avoid falling into the trap of wanting to be too close. It is a balance and I admit it is very difficult to resist the temptation to shoot right next to the scene. Keep in mind though, while success is not guaranteed, the end results can be very rewarding!

About the Author

Steven Blandin is an award-winning photographer leading bird photography workshops in Florida and Alaska. He was born in the French Caribbean and now lives in Florida with his family. Though he started his career in corporate finance, his wife made him discover the beauty of wildlife photography through an epic African safari in Botswana. Since then, his appetite for nature photography has grown exponentially! Now an accomplished bird photographer, Steven strives to share his passion through the photographic education of other nature enthusiasts. To see more of Steven’s work or to learn more about his bird photography tours, visit www.stevenbirdphotography.com. Follow his blog for more tips and top-notch photography or his work on Instagram @stevenbirdphotography.

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